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In NBA firestorm over China, a reminder of the bottom line; Nets owner Tsai backs regime, provokes nostalgia for Prokhorov

Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, he of spy-villain accent and valuable media coaching, seems to have had a rather uncontroversial stint as an NBA owner, after all, despite his association--however tempered--with the Russian regime.

Comment of the day yesterday on NetsDaily, from "il temuto": "Given the current day’s geopolitical climate, I *cannot believe* that I am sitting here wishing that the *Russian oligarch* who owned this team still owned the team."

A lot of people might not have expected new Brooklyn Nets owner, Joe Tsai, the Taiwanese-Canadian billionaire educated (h.s., college, law school) at elite U.S. institutions, to be pushed into a geopolitical conflict as both business peacemaker (on behalf of the NBA) and provocateur (toward those less disposed toward authoritarian China).

But he made his fortune in China with Alibaba.

A tweet sets off a storm

So when Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey tweeted, “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong," that provoked a disavowal from his boss, Tillman Fertitta, a deletion of the tweet, an apology from Rockets star James Harden, and a cascade of sports-political conflict involving Tsai.

The NBA apologized in Chinese, distanced itself in English, then--after a firestorm of criticism from a bi-partisan group of U.S. elected officials and numerous sports columnists--clarified its defense of free expression and the hope that sports would be a bridge. (That didn't placate China.)

Before that second statement, Tom Ziller in SB Nation yesterday wrote The limit of the NBA’s dedication to free speech:
It looks like the NBA upholds the principles of free speech in democracies where free speech is (usually) tolerated and expected (like the United States), but not as it pertains to the regimes in which political free speech could result in lost revenue or missed opportunities for the league (like China, based on this weekend’s actions). Some estimates have the league’s business in China worth $4 billionThe Tencent deal alone was reportedly estimated at $1.5 billion.
The message to NBA players, coaches and staff is that you can be as political as you want so long as it only offends people without real power to affect the bottom line. Silver isn’t afraid of Trump’s ability to hurt his business, so NBA personalities can say whatever they want about him. But his stance is different when it comes to Chinese President Xi Jinping, who could theoretically rocket the league right out of China if he wanted. That reality informs the NBA’s response, and so far, Silver and the league look awfully bad.
As I wrote on Twitter, it reminded me of a quote from lawyer Norman Siegel in the film "Battle for Brooklyn": They’re skilled at what they do, and they have some very powerful elected officials... People think it’s all about money and for many of you, perhaps there will be a price. But for some of you, it’s not about money.”

The Toronto Star's Bruce Arthur yesterday wrote NBA chooses money over principle in response to Chinese backlash over tweet:
But just like sports teams are not your friend, sports leagues are a collection of businesses for whom avarice is the primary connector. Morey had to back down. At an exhibition game in Japan, Rockets star James Harden stood next to Russell Westbrook and said, “We apologize. We love China.”
As I wrote on Twitter, Arthur's observation reminded me of a phrase by Bettina Damiani, then of Good Jobs New York, aired in 2007 regarding new stadiums and arenas: teams were better described as "sports entertainment corporations."

Enter Tsai

Wrote Arthur:
...The system is not set up for corporate money to choose principle, so the NBA took a side here, and Silver said he also supported Joe Tsai. Tsai, the Brooklyn Nets owner and the co-founder of Chinese multinational giant Alibaba, released a statement ignoring China’s authoritarianism, but citing China’s reasons to want Hong Kong fully under its control — invoking its history, including the Opium Wars with the British, and the Rape of Nanking. He claimed all 1.4-billion Chinese were united, which is . . . well, the dream of the fascist state.
Indeed, fan commentary on NetsDaily was frequently critical of Tsai, who the New York Times noted had previously not been seen as political.

Here's Trinity University Prof. Gina Anne Tam, on Twitter:
Tsai repeats the narrative of what is called "National Humiliation," ubiquitous in school, in media, and online in the PRC. It is premised on the idea that China's national sovereignty was perpetually endangered and that any loss of territory was an existential threat (2)
...In a word, this narrative of "national humiliation" has a long history and drives popular nationalism today. But most importantly, it has been weaponized by the current government to conflate territorial integrity with their own power (7)...
It ain't over

The backlash has continued. NetsDaily wrote this morning:
As tensions between the NBA and China continue to mount, both CCTV, the country’s main television network, and TenCent, the NBA’s digital carrier, have announced they will not broadcast the Nets-Lakers preseason game Thursday night in Shanghai. The second game of the NBA China Games, in Shenzhen Saturday, remains on the TV schedule ... for now.
ESPN tried to stay in stick-to-sports mode, but has at least allowed some AP coverage. Teams like the Nets are trying to look on the bright side. From NetsDaily:
Meanwhile, the Nets and their owner went through with some internal events including a team photo atop a Shanghai skyscraper, all recorded on the Nets social media feeds as if nothing was amiss. 
Still, a Nets community event in Shanghai was canceled abruptly.

What's next?

Maybe it's an opportunity for the Nets to grow their fan base--at least in China. Ironically, it might make Knicks owner James Dolan, widely loathed for his basketball un-wisdom and his treatment of dissenters like former Knick Charles Oakley, more palatable.

We'll see if a major NBA figure--not a GM or owner ("governor") but a star previously hailed for speaking on issues like racial justice--echoes Morey. Would Chinese fans of the NBA discard their LeBron James jerseys?

Is this a corporate change?

Meanwhile, the precedent is... disturbing--though it's not the first example, given that other companies have bowed to China's wishes, as Michael Powell noted in the Times. Wrote Eric Levitz in New York magazine:
The scarily plausible alternative to Clinton’s dream of democratizing China through free trade is not Xi imposing one-party capitalism on the U.S. through the same process. Rather, it is that our plutocratic version of liberal democracy and China’s illiberal version of state capitalism will continue converging toward the same version of kleptocracy.
Wrote Matthew Iglesias in Vox:
What happened was simply that a high-ranking Rockets executive offered an opinion on the subject in English on a platform that’s banned in China. In effect, the Chinese government is trying (and seemingly succeeding) in getting the NBA to censor participation in the American public square.
In theory, the same logic could lead China to trawl the social media posts of every employee of every Western company that does business in China and start making complaints. Obviously in practice they’re not going to start worrying about the tweets of random Apple Store employees tomorrow. But what happened to Morey is disturbing in large part because it’s not at all clear how far this slope will slip.
But maybe the backlash will be meaningful. Wrote Mike Bird in today's Wall Street Journal:
The National Basketball Association is the latest of many companies to cause a political firestorm in China. But the response at home to the league’s handling of the crisis shows the rules are changing for how American companies react to foul calls in Beijing. This time, the predictable cycle of upset, uproar, regret and genuflection is generating a backlash of its own. 
He also noted:
The backlash also means that the NBA's operations in China—like its training academy in Xinjiang, the western Chinese province where Muslims have been oppressed and interned in camps—are likely to come under greater scrutiny. 
Commented Net Income (aka Bob Windrem):
i think you drastically underestimate how bad this is
Chinese are angry. From everything I have heard and have read, Tsai statement represents the beliefs of the people, whether you like it or not, whether it’s the truth or not.
As for the importance of China to the NBA, it is enormous. Some months, revenue from China exceeds revenue from North America. If the revenues drop, then the calculation of basketball related income drops, the salary cap drops, team evaluation drops and ultimately, a dramatic re-engineering of the NBA is required.
New York Times columnist Bari Weiss wrote re Tsai:
"The question is how an American league that prides itself on promoting progressive values squares those values with allowing an apologist for authoritarianism to own one of its teams."